Wildlands Network recognizes recreational corridors, particularly National Scenic Trails, as opportunities for enhancing ecological connectivity across North America. In the early 1920s, wilderness visionary Benton MacKaye imagined an “Appalachian Trail” coursing the length of the Appalachia Mountains. Since then, millions of hikers have explored portions of this 2,190-mile portal to wildness.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is the best protected thread of the broader tapestry of interconnected wildlife corridors that make up Wildlands Network’s Eastern Wildway. The trail travels through 14 states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains Range, from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine. Its surrounding landscape is rich in natural and cultural resources, providing a natural habitat corridor for hundreds of species through otherwise disconnected conservation lands.
The AT is a unit of the National Park System and is managed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) under a unique partnership between the public and private sectors. The AT encompasses a wide array of eco-regions and climates and passes through existing or potential critical habitat for several threatened or endangered species, including red wolves, cougars, Canada lynx, martens, and other native carnivores. Many of the plants, birds, fish, salamanders, and butterflies along the AT are found nowhere else on Earth.
Current Threats Along the AT
While the AT foot path itself is now protected, much of the land along the trail’s corridor is not. These areas are vulnerable to development, putting scenic viewsheds and wildlife movement corridors outside the protected foot path of the AT at risk. Human hikers can easily roam the trail wild and free, but we need to ensure wildlife can roam throughout the larger AT corridor as well.
Development threats along the AT corridor include expanded electric transmission corridors, new or expanded highways and roads, poorly sited industrial wind farms, and large-scale natural gas pipelines, among others. The Mountain Valley Pipeline threatens the mountainsides near Roanoke, VA, with the potential to severely degrade the landscape and aquatic systems and to threaten the area’s wildlife and forested ecosystems.
Wildlands Network is currently working with the ATC to identify priority areas with high wildlife habitat and landscape connectivity values. Wildlands Network is currently focusing on Central Appalachian partnerships fostering land and watershed conservation as well as restoration where possible.
Who Is—and Isn’t—Living There?
Reconnecting the land along the AT corridor protects the recreational value of the iconic trail, while providing critical protections for all species, both flora and fauna. Wildlands Network’s primary effort is mapping priority areas to increase connectivity and foster complete, intact ecosystems.
Key fauna, including cougars, red wolves, and Canada lynx, would benefit from a wider swath of protected and connected Appalachian Trail landscapes, especially since many of these unique species are missing from their historic range along the larger AT corridor.
Cougars, for example, once roamed the Appalachians, the Southeast Coastal Plain, and the Adirondacks. Currently, the only cougars found in the Eastern Wildway live in southern Florida and exist solely as a small, endangered population. A healthy population could roam freely along a protected AT corridor. Some scientists warn that Eastern deciduous forests could fail if cougar and wolf populations are not restored soon. This is due to the overpopulation of deer—herbivores whose browsing can negatively impact native forest regeneration—in many areas.
In addition, red wolves are not presently found along the AT, and they are among the most critically endangered mammals in the world. They currently inhabit only a small area in eastern North Carolina and have faced centuries of persecution, dating back to the first European settlers in America. Wildlands Network wants to see healthy wolf populations introduced to the southern portions of the AT and ultimately restored to all core areas of the Southeast, connected by safe habitat corridors including the AT.
Canada lynx are protected as a threatened species in the contiguous U.S., and their native range historically included the Northeast section of the AT. Wildlands remains hopeful that lynx can persist and continue expanding into the northern reaches of the Lower 48, especially as landscape along the AT is protected and connected, though global warming will pose an increasing challenge to the survival of this species.
Contrary to our society’s often negative portrayal of carnivores, greater populations of carnivores—even throughout corridors surrounding popular hiking trails like the AT—are essential to a healthy ecosystem and greater quality of life for all. Carnivores help prevent ungulates (hoofed mammals like deer) from over-browsing vegetation that provides critical habitat for songbirds, salamanders, and other wildlife, and they help control populations of smaller animals such as rabbits and rodents.
Attacks on humans are extremely rare. Vehicle collisions with deer and tick-borne diseases are much more commonly occurring threats to humans, and economic studies have actually predicted that large carnivore restoration could provide a strong positive net benefit for public health and safety
Rewilding the AT Corridor
In partnership with the ATC, Wildlands Network is currently refining a set of priority areas along the corridor and developing a ground-truthing action plan. Ground-truthing—data collected on the ground, rather than remotely—allows conservationists to share precise and accurate information and opens the door to conservation actions, management decision-making, and citizen-science opportunities.
We are applying evidence-based, scientific models to identify priority conservation areas based on a range of values, e.g viewshed protection, trail recreational value, development threats and importance for biodiversity, climate resilience and habitat connectivity. This initiative will allow us to inform protection efforts and fuel partnership initiatives.
In 2017, Wildways trekker John Davis spoke with Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) as they hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail about the Congressman’s support for the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act. The trail and its surrounding corridor provided the perfect backdrop to discuss connectivity for wildlife across the nation.
Take Action Today!
There are several ways you can take action to help us and our partners protect the important wildlife corridor surrounding the AT:
- Take a hike! Discover your favorite part of the AT and take notice of what needs to be protected in the viewshed. Let us know which areas are YOUR priority.
- Ground-truth the AT! Hike the trail, take photos, and document threats and opportunities. Is there strong evidence of human impact in certain vulnerable areas? Did you have a wildlife encounter? Share on social media using #ATCorridor or #ATWildlife, or simply tag @wildlandsnetwork.
- Participate in a volunteer work party along the trail. The ATC hosts dozens of events in all 14 states along the AT. Learn more here.
- Join the fight against development projects that threaten to cross the AT in various places and cause major ecological disruptions. Learn more here.
- Donate to Wildlands Network to help conserve the best places in which we can achieve wins for wildlife and people.